Write with sounds of silence, Kingston says

In a small room in the Kelly Writers House, Maxine Hong Kingston led a dozen undergraduates through an exercise in listening. And talking. And just being silent.

Maxine Hong Kingston

Photo by Jane Scheer

Kingston, the author of this year's Penn Reading Project book, "The Woman Warrior," did it because she said that would-be writers should follow the advice actress Meryl Streep gives would-be actors: You have to be a good listener.

All three skills, she said, are necessary for a writer to fully develop. "As writers, we live in silence and speech," she said.

The students, who met with Kingston March 24, began by taking a deliberate, deep breath as a way of raising their awareness. Then Kingston had the students pair off for the talking-and-listening exercise.

In the exercise, students described themselves to their partners; then their partners told them what they had heard. Then the partners switched roles. Finally, Kingston asked each student to introduce his or her partner to the entire group with a one-sentence description.

The whole process took eight minutes. "That's all it takes to build a community," Kingston said, noting the importance of a "community of like minds" to creative writers.

Kingston also answered questions about the writing life.

She objects to the notion that minority writers must be "representative" of their particular group. "Is any artist 'representative' of anybody else? What does Shakespeare represent?" she said.

When asked how she handled criticism of "The Woman Warrior," she noted that "you get not only negative criticism, but positive criticism for the wrong things. A New York Times book reviewer said that I was writing about China all wrong. But I'm not writing about China. I'm writing about America."

Kingston's workshop was part of a day-long visit to campus that included speaking to an English class, lunch with Asian-American Studies students, and delivering the keynote address at the annual School of Arts and Sciences Dean's Forum.

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Originally published on April 1, 1999